A Dreamer Walking

An Animation Lesson from a Non-Animator

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on March 10, 2014

I must say I do not like using long titles. But this title I believe is very much needed to let you know what this post is about. The reality is I am not an animator. I really don’t plan on becoming one. Even though I am one of animations greatest fans I just don’t think I have the talent to bring drawings or models in a computer to life. Animating is truly one of the greatest magic tricks out there. To fool someone into thinking several drawings flashed in-front of you can create the illusion of movement, and at times life, leaves me speechless. I truly have no words for the wonder it creates in me. As the great animator Richard Williams once said, “I picked the most expensive medium that takes the longest time that you [could pick]. And the reward is you can play God. You can do anything you like with it. You have total control of all the elements.”. This is what makes animation so intoxicating. The medium’s only limits are of ones imagination.

The lesson I wanted to give is really only a retelling of a lesson I heard from an artist who actually did animation. I was listening to The iAnimate Podcast – A podcast that interviews animation artists who work in the film industry – and they were interviewing the Dreamworks animator Tal Shwarzman (check out his blog here). He brought up a frustration he had with the animation he is seeing from many of the young animators today. He claimed young animators are becoming really good at moving stuff around but are not putting any personality or uniqueness into their work. He said, “Everything kind of looks the same”, which I would say is the ultimate slight an animator could give to his peers. The problem is I agree with Shwarzman. I have not seen anywhere close to as many animation show reels as Shwarzman but in the animation on TV and in many feature films I see less individuality. With the development of technology animation is able to do more then ever before, yet rarely do you see a scene that rivals the works of great animators of the past, like Bill Tyltla or Milt Kahl.

What is the special ingredient so many animators seem to be missing today? Honestly there is no one answer. But the interviewers from iAnimate brought up the story of Ollie Johnston telling his pupil Glen Keane a piece of Rapunzel animation he showed him looked well processed but didn’t really entertain him. Now you should know Ollie Johnston was an animator from the 1930’s and worked characters such as Pinocchio, Thumper, and Baloo. Glen Keane had been the lead animator for characters such as Ariel and The Beast. However, the interviewers sort of left the story there. I don’t know if they knew about what Ollie Johnston really told Glen Kean. However, I know what he said and believe it is one of the greatest pieces of  advice an animator could be given.

During the production of Tangled Ollie Johnston was in his nineties. He was not in good health and his best friend, Frank Thomas, who had worked with him through out his long forty plus year career at Disney had already passed away. Glen Keane was mentored by Ollie Johnston when he first joined the studio in the late 1970’s. Now in the mid 2000’s he had been developing the movie Rapunzel (which would eventually be changed to Tangled). At this time Ollie was in very frail condition. He could no longer walk and had lost his ability to draw. His old apprentice needed to take him in a wheelchair back to the animation studios. Keane showed some of the things they had been developing to his old mentor. He talked about how excited he was with the benefits of working with computer generated animation. He pointed out the way the computer calculated Rapunzel’s freckles so they would stay on her face no matter where she was moved. He showed Ollie how well the animation worked in three dimensions and showed him how the computer could capture the smallest details in movement and texture. He showed Ollie Johnston several well executed pieces of animation and was excited about seeing his old mentor’s reaction. You can only imagine Keane’s surprise when he looked over and Ollie didn’t seem to be entertained by what he was shown. Maybe it was because Ollie was old and senile. Maybe it was because Ollie wasn’t up with the times. Eventually Keane asked what was wrong. The old animator whispered, “What is she thinking?”

Of course with all the excitement for this new form of animation Glen Keane forgot one of his teacher’s greatest lessons. He was so entranced by what was possible on the outside he forgot to care about what was happening on the inside. The illusion of life is only created in a piece of animation if you believe the character can think and feel. The beauty of the movement or the clarity of the world means nothing if the characters don’t have any inner life. Go back and watch the animation of Thumper repeating the lessons he was given from his farther, Pinocchio trying to explain how he got into Stromboli’s cage to the Blue Fairy, or when Baloo realizes he needs to take Mowgli back to the man village. The movements in those scenes are usually subtle yet speak volumes about the characters. When listening to animators like Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston talk about the characters they animated in the past they don’t describe them as drawings. They describe them as children who took on a life of their own when the animator finished animating them.  As important as squash and stretch, timing, staging, anticipation, overlap action, and the other principles of animation are, what is most important in creating the ultimate illusion of life is the belief your character is alive.

2 Responses

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  1. Jose said, on March 28, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    This is a great and insightful advice for aspiring animators. Time after time I’ve encountered animation students from prestigious schools showing off their work online. They describe how hard they worked on the technical aspects of the squashing, tweening and mathematical equations they programmed for fantastic visual effects in 3D. Yet as animators they don’t seem to discuss much about their characters, the people their animating. They don’t seem to understand them well enough to bring out the best qualities in them. Animators seem to spend more time concerned on gaining perfect smooth movements but lack any charm or personality in their characters themselves.They need to remember that animation is also the illusion of life, the closer they get to understand their work the more alive it will be. There needs to be a more philosophical way of approaching animation.

    • Jacob said, on March 29, 2015 at 11:07 pm

      I am glad you liked the post Jose. Animation is a truly magical medium. But too many artists are forget where the magic comes from. Technology is doing things in animation no one could have imagined when Ollie Johnston was working at Disney. However, that stuff means nothing if they are not able to understand the simple lesson Ollie gave Glen Keane during the production of Tangled; what matters is what is going on behind all the moments and flashy details. Thanks for checking out the post!


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